In Focus

Elderly father beats COVID, family continues to fight stigma

By Sonal Aggarwal

On 29 May 2020, stung by the lockdown imposed due to the coronavirus, all of Colaba stood still. The roads lay barren owing to the police ban on pedestrian movement set to end two days later on 31 May 2020. The still was broken by the all-familiar sound of an ambulance siren. Resident, now weary with fear and anticipation moved, once again, to their window-sills to watch the ambulance arrive for yet another COVID patient.
How life changes. Just two months back, the same road in Mumbai’s oldest heritage precinct - Colaba, stood ravaged by blaring taxi horns, fast-paced office-goers and pedestrians, hathgadiwalas, hawkers and speeding motorists swerving their way in and out of the swarm of larger vehicles. 
Cut to the fourth phase of the lockdown, the sound of sirens and screeching ambulances was a daily occurrence. The fear was palpable.

But, this time around, it was different. The ambulance stopped in front of Pipewala Building in Colaba and a paramedic in PPE helped an old man alight. The man waved goodbye and walked by himself.

SURVIVOR: Oil-shop owner and Pipewala building resident Abdul Aziz Shaikhani beat COVID-19
He entered the building and knocked on a door on the first floor. The resident Shaikhani family, on opening their door hesitantly, were exhilarated. Abdul Aziz Shaikhani, the 69-year-old patriarch of the family, had returned after spending ten days at a COVID-19 quarantine facility, now asymptomatic and, all by himself, on foot. Their wishes had come true.

“We were so happy to see him at the door, on his own, in much better health. It was one of the happiest moments of my life,” says Abdul’s son Asif Shaikhani. The sentiment was shared by all members of the family, Asif’s wife Sharmin and mother Rukhsana.

“He had arrived unannounced as the BMC hadn’t informed us he was being discharged. It was the best surprise we could have got!”

It all began about a fortnight ago when Abdul Aziz developed a niggling fever and cough. “No one, including my father, paid much heed to it. Who takes a fever seriously anyway? My father visited a local doctor and took the usual OTC medicines,” says Asif. However, when the father’s health deteriorated further and showed no signs of improvement for some time, the family got worried. After all, these were COVID times.

“The doctor prescribed a few tests that included the COVID-19 test which went on to come positive. We were told the BMC would contact us for a future course of action. However, we didn’t want to wait or cause any further delay and, instead, contacted the BMC directly,” says Asif.

The Shaikhanis had never imagined anyone in the family could contract the Coronavirus. It was, after all, “something that happened to someone else.”

RELIEVED: Asif Shaikhani flanked by wife Sharmin and daughter Adiba
“It was the month of Ramzan and everyone was occupied with the festivities. We were all hearing and watching on TV about COVID-19. But, no one imagined, in their wildest dreams, that a family member, one of us, could contract it.”

“While we enquired at private facilities first, most of them said no beds were available. The few where beds were available were charging a fortune, as high as Rs one lakh per day. We simply could not afford the costs. When my father’s health began deteriorating swiftly, we decided to put him in a BMC facility. The local Shiv Sena shakha helped us immensely during that time.”

The next day, an ambulance arrived and Abdul was “shifted to a BMC quarantine facility at Chemco House, opposite New Excelsior in Fort.”

Meanwhile, at Pipewala Building, the family was unaware of the battle to follow.

“When people realised my father was being taken away for quarantine, I started receiving calls and messages from far and beyond only to confirm the news. It was as if we had committed a serious crime.”
The Shaikhani family, living in Pipewala Building since 1980, realised the stigma attached to the virus “changed everything”. Why, even “the behaviour of neighbours and other residents in the building and neighbourhood, who we knew for years together, changed overnight. That was the worst part of the whole experience.” 
While Abdul was being treated at the quarantine facility, the family “decided to isolate themselves at home to ensure the safety of all.”

“We were told the BMC would contact us to explain the home-quarantine procedure, which they did about five days later, but, by then, we had stacked up on groceries and other essential items and locked ourselves in, immediately.”

For most COVID-19 patients and their families, it’s the stigma and the ensuing social ostracising that leaves them traumatised. “The taboo is worse than the disease itself. The so-called ‘educated’ people have behaved in such a deplorable manner with us. It’s the ‘uneducated’ who were a lot more sensitive and understanding.”

Citing incidents during the home-quarantine period that shook and hurt the family, Asif explains how they were being “treated like untouchables. Messages were being forwarded to one and all and no one came to talk to us directly. Some even said there are germs floating on the floor we live on. The maid stopped coming on her own accord. The cleaner stopped picking up the trash. Good Samaritans, ‘poor’ and ‘uneducated’ such as vegetable vendors delivered groceries till our doorstep.”

When the BMC finally contacted the “already home quarantined” family five days later, they “sanitised the floor and sealed it.”

During the home quarantine, the family took necessary precautions such as “using gloves, masks, sanitisers and drinking turmeric kadha (decoction).”

Asif’s mother Rukhsana, who did not fast during Ramzan this year, just like her husband owing to his bad health, prayed relentlessly. “She just wanted her husband to come back safe and healthy. She would get worried each time a relative called even if it were to enquire about my father,” says Asif. “What could she have done except pray?”

REUNION: The Shaikhani family, in full, at a marriage ceremony held before the lockdown, is again complete
The family was not allowed to meet Abdul in the quarantine facility. Occasional phones calls were the only source of information. “We weren’t sure of what was happening, what medications were being given, whether his health was improving or not. It was a little scary.”

Yet, it was Abdul Aziz’s positive mindset and never-say-die attitude that worked for him and his family. “Whenever I spoke to my father, he would only say – I am getting bored here, get me out fast!”

“My father has never stopped working. He would sit every day at the family-owned oil shop at Colaba Market, without fail, till the day he fell ill. I believe it was only because of his positive attitude that he could fight the virus, even at this age. He surprised us all,” maintains Asif lauding his father’s indomitable spirit and determination. “He recovered fast and returned home within 9 days, with a clearance certificate from the BMC.”
According to Asif Shaikhani, “The administration is also facing a shortage of resources such as ICU beds and other facilities across Mumbai. We can beat the virus by being positive, pro-active and not panicking. It doesn't make sense to load a system already buckling under pressure. One needs to just take the necessary precautions and good care of health.”
Speaking from the experience the family endured, just because a family member was tested positive for COVID-19, Asif says, “It’s the stigma associated with COVID-19 that prevents many people from coming out even with the symptoms.”

“There’s a possibility that after my father, I and other family members might have contracted the virus too, remained asymptomatic and went on to recover too over time.”

There are millions of families in Mumbai and across the country, with COVID-19 positive patients, fighting multiple battles - with the virus and against social stigma.

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